VANCOUVER—Ken Holland knows his every move will be the subject of heated debate as he battles to right the slumping Edmonton Oilers.
The new Edmonton general manager understands just how intense the fanbase is, having played junior hockey in Alberta at the height of the Oilers’ glory days.
“I’m very, very familiar with the passion of the fans of the Canadian teams, of the Oilers fans,” Holland said in a recent phone interview. “Certainly I understand that I’m coming here when they’ve made the playoffs once in 13 years and the fans are anxious, they’re frustrated. They want their team to be involved in the playoffs.”
Despite the pressure, the 63-year-old is looking forward to returning to Canada after spending more than 30 years with the Detroit Red Wings.
Holland grew up in Vernon, B.C., where his family lived just blocks from the local rink. His dad managed several teams and his mom was always in the stands for his games.
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It’s been decades since he laced up his skates there, but the “Western Canadian boy” still credits the town of just over 48,000 with propelling him into a life of professional hockey.
“Vernon and B.C. gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream and my dream obviously was to go as far as I could in hockey,” said the longtime hockey executive, who will be inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday.
“And as big as I could dream, I could never have dreamed of being as fortunate as being in the National Hockey League for my entire career.”
After playing junior hockey in Medicine Hat, Alta., and several seasons in the American Hockey League, Holland was hired as a scout with the Red Wings in 1985. The former goalie eventually worked his way up to the front office, spending 22 years as GM and winning three Stanley Cups while at the club’s helm.
The game and the league have changed since Holland’s days in net. The NHL has gotten much faster, younger and more skilled, and there’s no longer room for “one-dimensional” players, he said.
“But ultimately the same ingredients that you needed to win a Stanley Cup in 1997 when we won our first Cup are still the same ingredients you need today,” he said. “You need stars, you need depth, you need size, you need good defenceman, you need great goaltending. You need some luck.”
Earlier this year, Holland turned the Red Wings’ GM job over to Steve Yzerman and took on a senior vice-president role with the club.
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“I felt it was time for different leadership,” he said. “I’m thrilled I could hand the keys to Steve Yzerman and he took control of the team and I hope one day, I’d love one day, for the Oilers and the Red Wings to meet in the finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It would be exciting.”
During a scouting trip to the world under-18 championship in Sweden, however, Holland realized he wasn’t ready to take a step back. He still loves sitting in rinks, watching junior and college hockey, assessing young talent and building a team.
Holland does occasionally need a hockey detox and finds relaxation in spending time with Cindi, his wife of 39 years, their four grown children and their five grandchildren. He also loves to “grind away” at golf with friends, often near his summer home in Vernon.
But he’s looking forward to the challenges and excitement that await him in Edmonton.
The Oilers already have some great young talent, Holland said, and the problems they face aren’t unlike what he’s previously seen with the Red Wings.
Solving those issues won’t always make him popular, he added.
“I’m going to come in here and do what I believe is in the best interest of the Edmonton Oilers short term and long term,” Holland said.
“I understand there’s going to be scrutiny. That comes with the job. I had scrutiny in Detroit. And there’s going to be people who are happy with the job you’re doing and people that are unhappy. But I’ve got some experience and I’m confident that we’re going to put together an organization that, in time, is going to make the people of Edmonton proud.”